I was at a meeting in Washington on Thursday where we were discussing the effects that the Democrats’ drubbing in the November 2 mid-terms could be expected to have on the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”. Most of the participants were understandably glum. (This was just after the news came out about Netanyahu’s Wednesday-night meeting with the GOP’s incoming House Majority Leader, the dreadful Eric Cantor. See Glenn Greenwald’s excellent commentary on that, here.)
My interest did get kind of piqued, however, when one fairly senior retired diplomat spoke up toward the end of the discussion, and said, “I disagree. I think we will see Obama liberated after the midterms, to conduct foreign policy as he sees fit. He will no longer feel he needs to look over his shoulder to keep his congressional followers behind him– because he won’t have any.”
Well, it was an interesting theory. The speaker went on to talk about how, back in 1994, Pres. Clinton had also had a horrible time in the first midterm elections of his presidency, losing the House to the GOP– but had then gone on to pursue a very successful and imaginative foreign policy.
Um, yes. Maybe. I think I disagree quite a bit about Clinton having pursued a great foreign policy. Weren’t those the years in which, fatally, and at Dennis Ross’s urging, he dropped the ball on nailing down the deadlines to complete the final-status Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement? Did he have to go on and bomb Serbia? Etc., etc.
But even if we “grant” Clinton some success… the world of 2010 is still very, very different from the world of 1994.
In 1994, the United States stood effortlessly astride the whole international system. A U.S. president could make bold moves in foreign policy (even though Clinton really didn’t do very much of that)… But he could have, both because all the other actors around the world were still much punier than the U.S., and because here inside the United States, the legacy of the Cold War and of many decades of custom before that meant that people really did act as if “politics stops at the water’s edge”… That is, even the most partisan critics of the president at home did not do anything that might undermine his ability to conduct an effective diplomacy on the world stage.
How things have changed– in both regards. Example number 1 of the latter shift is Eric Cantor himself, with the assurance he gave to Netanyahu in which, as reported by his office, he “stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration… ”
But the balance has changed a lot internationally since 1994, as well. Even the most cursory reading of the reports from the past week’s G-20 summit Seoul shows that.
In a good report on the FT website yesterday, Alan Beattie wrote,
President Barack Obama arrived in Seoul at this week’s G20 summit chastened by the Democrats’ drubbing in the midterm elections. If he thought that he would find peace by retreating to the rarefied heights of international summitry, he was sadly mistaken.
He went on to note the tide of criticism that has been rising internationally (including among all other 19 members of the G-20), since the U.S. Federal reserve announced its policy of renewed “quantitative easing” (QE2,also known as “printing more dollars”) two weeks ago.
To be fair, Mr Obama’s administration, although few doubt it is highly sympathetic to QE2, cannot control the Fed and does not comment on monetary policy. Still, American policymakers have shown a curious reluctance to defend the US more generally in public. It was just this Thursday, more than a week after the Fed’s QE2 decision, that Tim Geithner, Treasury secretary, went on TV effectively to rebut the widespread international charge that it was pursuing a weaker dollar.
Once, this reticence would not have mattered. In the heady days of the late 1990s when Mr Geithner was last at the Treasury and the department often appeared to be running global economic policy single-handed, it generally had the financial and reputational clout to get its way at international meetings without having to orchestrate the mood music beforehand. But being the strong, silent type only works for those powerful enough to let their strength do the talking.
Bottom line: Once upon a time, the U.S. was so powerful internationally that a U.S. president could almost always portray himself as successful if he took actions on the world stage… and many U.S. presidents used this power with some success to try to counteract the erosion of their political support at home. (Think of Nixon on his farewell tour to Paris; or earlier, going to China.)
Now, though, that card suddenly doesn’t seem available for a U.S. president. Indeed, Washington’s international clout is so diminished– in part because of the disastrous policies pursued by Pres. G. W. Bush, in part because of other, longer-term processes, including the country’s apparent inability to escape the shackles of heavy, longterm military spending– that today, if a president launches any significant initiative overseas he runs a serious and probably increasing risk of appearing even weaker at home because of the way his initiative gets dissed abroad.
…And so the world turns.